Saturday, October 22, 2011

I Call It Body Snatching

It seems that, since cathedrals could not be consecrated without some saint's relics and possession of relics leads to pilgrim dollars donated to the cathedral, there was a lack of sharing amongst parishes when it comes to relics. Indeed, there was quite a bit of grave robbing going on. Of course it was not called 'grave robbing' or 'body snatching' rather it was called 'translatio' within the church. A given body was translated to its final resting place which often became a feast day in its own right.
Under King Cnut, the abbot of Canterbury, Aelfstan (elf-stone) claimed to have had a dream where St. Mildred came to him wanting to be buried in her home town. He claimed to have gotten permission from Cnut to take Mildred from her tomb on Thanet and translate her to Canterbury. If that is the case, why did they have a getaway boat by the shore and snuck up to her tomb at night to pry it open? The townspeople, when they realized something was up, chased after them with clubs and pointy sticks. They got away with the body, which apparently smelled delicious. There is a term for this kind of action 'furta sacra" or sacred thefts which shows you how common this kind of body-snatching was.
Grave robbing is grave robbing, however way you rename it. Of course owning the relics of a popular saint was like money in the bank but I am not going to accuse the abbot of being mercenary. Surely it was piety that drove him to this action. Another thirty years and Anglo Saxon saints would probably be out of fashion anyway. The Norman Conquest would be underway and French would then be the fashion. So where is her body now, since following the dissolution of the monasteries the relics were dispersed or thrown away? Possibly they were taken to Deventer in Holland for safekeeping. Although the saint 'desired' to remain in Canterbury, she did not make it back however a small piece was given to St. Mildred church in 1953. It is complicated. Here is a link.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Death of a Norseman

It is always interesting how differently people expressed ideas at various times and places. I am practicing my Old Norse by reading Hrolfs Saga Kraka. I became interested in the poor fellow hiding in a bone-pile in a hall. Clearly Bodvarr hauled him out of the pile to help him. The other men in the hall notice Bodvarr and Hottr (the guy from the bone-pile) sitting at a table and start flinging bones at them. One of them throws a large knucklebone at them which Bodvarr catches and flings back at him. "Hann fekk bana" "He fetches death." In the Zoega, 'fa' means to 'grasp with both hands'. That he does. It almost looks like a middle voice verb. i.e. 'fetches death for himself'. It sounds good but it is just a plain old past indicative which started out with a 'ng' and it turned into a 'kk'.
I have to wonder - why is there a pile of bones in the mead-hall. Doesn't anyone clean it out?

My Hero, Thor

I like Thor. He was a very popular god with the masses and why not. He was the protector of mankind. The humble dead went to his halls. His popularity was the biggest obstacle to converting the Norse to Christianity.
We were reading the story in the Grimnismal where Thor went on a trip with Loki. Loki behaved himself for once. They stopped at a peasant's home where Thor slaughtered the goats that draw his chariot and allowed them to be cooked for dinner, since the peasant did not have enough to feed his guests. The only proviso was that the bones were to be left intact but the peasant's son, Thjalfi, broke one of the bones for the marrow. So, in the morning, when Thor hallowed the bones with his hammer and brought the goats back to life, one of them was lame. Thor was angry but the peasant was so frightened that he took pity. Rather than kill the entire household, he took Thjalfi and his sister as servants with him.
Then, when they were looking for a place to sleep that night, they found an empty hall and slept in a small side chamber. The next morning, they realized that they had been sleeping in a giant's glove and a rather large one at that. Thor's normal reaction upon seeing a giant is to take up his hammer, Mjollnr, and give him/her a smack with it. When Skrymir stood up; Thor was too astonished to give him a whack. Snorri makes fun of Thor and makes him look like a meat-head. He said Thor failed to hit him and then what follows is some comical attempts by Thor to open the food bag, which he cannot untie, followed by Thor losing his temper and giving the sleeping Skrymir a thwack over the head. Skrymir wakes up and asks him if a leaf has fallen on his head. Thor waited for him to fall asleep again and struck him again, with the hammer going deep into his skull. This time Skrymir woke and asked if an acorn had fallen on his head. Thor tried one more time just before dawn and still Skrymir woke up and asked if some birds had dumped some litter on him.
Is Snorri making fun of Thor? Maybe. Snorri was a Christian. I think Skrymir's size makes it understandable that Thor was taken aback at first. At least Thor was capable of thinking and not just mindlessly going in to attack mode. I think his difficulties make him endearing. When Thor and his companions went to sleep in the glove, Thor stood at the entrance to keep watch. The Old Norse said that Thor took thought to protect himself. The pronoun 'sik' is in the accusative form, object of the infinitive, and is the most damning part of the story. However, Thor did stand in the doorway and keep watch all night. Anyone who wanted to get at Thjalfi, Roskva and Loki would have to get past him first. Clearly he was not just taking thought for his own protection alone. Later in the tale, Thor's strength and determination impress and frighten even Skrymir.

Friday, October 14, 2011

One Tin Soldier

I am sitting here avoiding my Old Norse homework, having a beer and taking a trip down memory lane on Youtube. There is one old song that I always pictured with Inca style mountain top towns or in the Southwestern US desert. Maybe that is because it was the theme song for a movie called 'Billy Jack' released in 1971 about a half-Indian Green Beret fighting for justice.
The Original Caste who produced the version of the song that I was most familiar with pictured something a bit more medieval. A tin soldier, of course, that would have to be a knight.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A Word of Old Norse

I was reading the Penguin Classic The Elder Edda: A Book of Viking-Lore translated and edited by Andy Orchard. Orchard more than W.H. Auden or Henry Adams Bellow tries to keep the language as literal as possible so I was a little curious about a phrase in Lokasenna (Loki's Home Truths) that I won't repeat here because I am trying to avoid cuss words. I have to wonder if the Penguin people had a few restless nights over this.
I had a chance to ask the translator 'why this word and not that?' 'Is that one more accurate?' since Bellows translated it as "Unmanly thy soul must seem" and Auden translated it as 'played a woman's part". The word in question is an adjective 'argr' and is defined in the Zoega as 'unmanly, effeminate'. The phrase that was Orchard's preference was again something I won't reprint here but does seem appropriate in a Norse trash-talking contest at a drinking party. Loki seems to have not been invited since he tends to be a bit of a buzz-kill. He succeeds well at ruining the party.
So then, what does it mean? It is uncontrollable lust basically. Usually applied to men, only once to a woman, and it is not heterosexual. So that ought to be enough to be getting on with, eh?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Stardust, A Review

I have never before read a book, the movie version of which was better than the book. Last night, that all changed. I read Stardust in three hours. It was a light and sweet story but there were a few problems. Tristan was born on the wrong side of the Wall. Everyone in his village knows this and Tristan reaches 17 without ever being told this by anyone including his father. Even when Tristan decides to venture into Faerie, his father still does not tell him about his mother.
The queen of the witches is desperate for the heart of a star. There hasn't been one for two hundred years. This may be her last chance because she and her sisters are very old and cannot live forever without the star. Tristan is not the one that will destroy her though. The squirrel has just found the acorn that will grow into the tree that will be cut down to make the cradle for the one who will kill her. How is this possible when she is falling apart now? That tree won't be big enough to cut down for at least one hundred years, probably more.
As well, *spoiler alert*, the witch queen is desperate for the heart, has ruthlessly killed others who were not even in her way but, when the star says that she has given her heart away to Tristan, she says 'oh well, that's it then.' and gives up.
Most movie producers tweak a story to give it more excitement and action. Usually that is not necessary because the novel itself has excitement enough but, in this case, it is an improvement. The dastardly Septimus is given a larger and more active role. No longer just a poisoner; he becomes a swordsman too. The lightening harvesters are also pirates and they teach Tristan how to fight. The witch queen and her sisters fight to the last witch to get that star and Septimus and his brothers cannot leave this sphere until the Power of Stormhold is found by the new heir. The novel was sweet but the movie was better.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Amon Hen, Odin's Seat of Seeing Far

I was reading Skirnismal for a class and was interesting in the seat, Hlidskjalf, that Freyr was sitting in when he saw Gerd, a giantess. Looking up Hlidskjalf in The Cassell Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend by Andy Orchard, I noted that it is Odin's seat from which he can observe all the worlds. It sounds very much like Amon Hen. The more I read Old English and especially Old Norse, the less I am going to be able to enjoy Lord of the Rings, I think.
Professor Orchard wrote that it is possible that Freyr's great longing was possibly a punishment for his presuming to sit on Odin's seat. Freyr fell so strongly in love with Gerd that he parted with his magic sword that fights giants on its own. Without that sword, Freyr will be unable to defeat Surt and will be killed at Ragnarok.
Aragorn also regretted taking the moment to sit on Amon Hen as he then came too late to save Boromir or prevent the orcs from taking Merry and Pippin.
I suppose for the comparison to work there has to be a seat of hearing as well. In Hrafnsmal, Raven-Song, Odin sat on Hlidskjalf to listen. It is an obscure little 12th century skaldic poem but I am sure Tolkien knew this one, too.

Friday, October 7, 2011

It's Freyr's Day

Not really. It is his twin's day based on the Romans' calling the fifth day of the week 'dies Veneris' which in the Norse Pantheon would mean Friday is Freya's day. Or Frigg. The Oxford English Dictionary voted in favor of Frigg. Brewer's Guide is sitting on the fence but adds that Friday was considered a lucky day of the week for the Norse and was when weddings took place.
If you ignore the Romans, this could just as easily be Freyr's day since Tuesday (Tiw), Wednesday (Woden), Thursday (Thor), and Saturday (Saturn) are all named for male gods. If Friday was named for a goddess that would make it unique unless you count the sun or the moon's day. In Norse, the sun is a goddess; to the Romans the moon is a goddess. The Northern gods seem to have been selected for those days where their character resembles a Roman god. Some one decided that Woden was like Mercury, but that is another topic.
Freyr(lord) is one of the Vanir. He came over to the Aesir after the war, possibly in an exchange of hostages. He, his father Njord, and his sister, Freya(lady) dwelt among the Aesir and are counted as one of their number. He will be at Ragnarok in the final battle between the gods and the giants but Freyr will die, killed by Surt, a fire giant, because Freyr lost his magic sword when he lost his heart to Gerd.
Freyr is a fertility god. He presides over rain and sunshine; he is kind to men. His father Njord, presides over the wind and sea, and Freya over love and sex. Freyr has a golden boar called Gullinborsti (Golden-Bristles) which pulls his chariot. Unfortunately, the sources that remain do not say who will avenge Freyr and what happens to Surt after he destroys the earth with fire. So Freya or Freyr, since they are two sides to the same coin really, could share the day. Frigg could kick Saturn out and take Saturday. Would not a week with two Fridays be fun?